The performer Howard Morrison – who died in Rotorua on 24 September 2009 – was one of the legends of New Zealand show business.
Known as ‘The Sinatra of New Zealand’ and ‘Ol' Brown Eyes’, he first came to prominence with the Howard Morrison Quartet, formed in 1956 with his brother Laurie, cousin John and Gerry Merito. They had a string of hit-singles in New Zealand and established a reputation as a highly polished live act combining great natural harmonies with humour. They were also regular and popular performers across the Tasman. After the Quartet disbanded in 1964 Morrison had a long and successful solo career. His services to the New Zealand entertainment scene were recognised in 1990 with a knighthood.
Born in Rotorua in 1935, Morrison was of Te Arawa and Irish descent. He attended Te Aute College and Rotorua Boys' High School. He performed in a number of Māori cultural groups, show bands and concert parties, and in 1955 started putting together vocal groups to entertain at various rugby clubs in Rotorua. After returning from a successful tour to Australia in 1956 with the Aotearoa Concert Party, he heard Gerry Merito performing at a family function and approached him about forming a group.
Auckland entrepreneur Benny Levin spotted the Quartet at a talent quest in late 1957 and signed them to appear on his touring ‘Pop Jamboree’. They started playing Auckland venues and soon secured a recording contract. In 1958 they released their first single, ‘There's Only One of You’/‘Big Man’. It was not a big seller, but the follow-up single ‘Hoki Mai’ (with ‘Po Karekare Ana’ on the flip-side) enjoyed more success.
The big time
Following a first national tour in 1959 the Quartet was signed by another emerging showbiz entrepreneur, Harry M. Miller. They were urged to become full-time professionals, but Laurie and John couldn't make this commitment. Morrison persuaded Wi Wharekura and Noel Kingi from Rotorua to join the group. It was this combination that cemented the Quartet's place in New Zealand entertainment history.
In 1960 the Quartet played to huge crowds as they topped the bill for the 'Summertime Spectacular'. On top of the live performances there were also an incredible 13 singles, three EPs and two LPs released. It is a testament to their popularity that they did not suffer from over-exposure.
Comedy and parody was a feature of the Quartet's act. A number of overseas hits were given a distinctly New Zealand twist. In 1959 Lonnie Donegan's 'The Battle of New Orleans' became 'The Battle of the Waikato'. In 1960 they recorded a bittersweet parody of another Lonnie Donegan hit, 'My Old Man's A Dustman'. 'My Old Man's an All Black', recorded live in the Pukekohe Town Hall, used humour to make a point about the All Blacks' decision to tour apartheid South Africa without Māori players. It was the worst recorded of the Quartet's songs but their biggest seller, with around 60,000 singles sold.
Constant touring in New Zealand and Australia helped turn the Quartet into a highly polished act. In Australia they supported a number of big international acts and Miller believed the Quartet was now ready for the bigger venues of Las Vegas and London. Morrison was reluctant to take this step fearing it would end any hope of maintaining their family way of life. The Quartet and Miller parted ways in 1963.
In 1964 Howard Morrison played solo-support for several touring American acts. The group got back together for an end of year tour of Australia and while in Sydney decided to call it quits. A farewell national tour was an overwhelming success and concluded with a final concert in Rotorua on New Year's Eve.
Morrison toured the country in 1965 with the Miss New Zealand Show. The following year he moved to the big screen, topping the bill in the musical comedy Don't Let It Get You and being named 'Entertainer of the Year'. Opportunities now arose in Asia. Morrison developed a strong fan base in venues stretching from Singapore to Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In Hawaii he starred at the opening celebrations of the Sheraton in Waikiki, performing with a number of international stars including his idol Sammy Davis Jnr, Andy Williams and Glen Campbell. He continued to tour in New Zealand and performed in regular cabaret spots in Auckland. Getting It All Together (1969), though, would be his last solo album until 1982.
Morrison's profile in the Pacific Rim area saw him used by the New Zealand Trade Commission to help promote the region. He was rewarded for this work with an OBE in 1976. In 1975 the Quartet reassembled for the first time in 11 years to celebrate Morrison's 40th birthday and to mark 20 years in show business. This reunion was tinged with sadness as Laurie Morrison had been killed the year before. The two concerts were sell-outs and there were calls for a national reunion tour. The group resisted the temptation. The rest of the country had to be content with the release of the reunion album, Return of a Legend.
Morrison used his profile to address concerns about the lack of achievement by many young Māori. He became a consultant on youth development for the Department Of Maori Affairs. He visited many schools in an attempt to improve pupils' self esteem and to encourage participation in higher levels of learning. He also developed wānanga or education programmes on marae. Morrison used his entertainment skills to promote the Tu Tangata, or Stand Tall programme. His nationwide Tu Tangata tour brought the Quartet together again, although Wi Wharekura was replaced by Toni Williams. The Morrison family, including Howard's mother, Kahu, joined the tour.
'How Great Thou Art'
Morrison re-established his position as one of New Zealand's foremost entertainers in 1982 following a television special filmed in Hamilton. The resulting album, Howard Morrison, was a massive seller with the single 'How Great Thou Art/Whakaaria Mai' spending five weeks at number one on the New Zealand charts. Morrison had performed this hymn for the Queen at a Royal Command Performance in 1981 to much acclaim. The song came to define the latter part of his career. For many New Zealanders Morrison became synonymous with this song in much the same way as Sinatra did with ‘My Way’. Morrison followed this success with the albums Songs of New Zealand (1985), Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing (1988) and Live in Concert (1989). He was New Zealand Entertainer of the Year in 1986 and Entertainer of the Decade in 1989. His first love remained live performances, where he could truly showcase his skills as an entertainer.
In 1989 Morrison was the subject of the television tribute show This Is Your Life. The show was popular and led to calls for a nationwide tour. Morrison played to packed houses. He sang at the Opening Ceremony of the Auckland Commonwealth Games the following year and in October 1990 received his Knighthood at his home marae in Ohinemutu.
Throughout the nineties Morrison continued recording, performing and promoting New Zealand through his role as a Cultural Ambassador. He also continued his charity work. This included his Ride for Life in 1990, a 45-day horse trek from Invercargill to Cape Reinga to raise awareness for the work of Life Education. Along the way he helped raise in excess of $1.2 million.
He passed away in his sleep at his Rotorua home on 24 September 2009. He was 74.
By Steve Watters